Thanksgiving has always been about food.

We suffer through the awkward small talk and often anti-climactic football games for the sake of the meal that awaits us at the end of the day, and even then that "meal" is representative of ethnic cleansing and genocide. But there are a few other pros that lay outside of gorging yourself on mashed potatoes. The holiday always falls on a Thursday, which means you always have a four day weekend. Black Friday is also the following day, so despite whatever infuriating experiences you may have on Thanksgiving with your family, you can at least rest easy knowing you can go out and buy enough stuff to numb the pain.

These reasons alone are enough to warrant celebration. So while you clench your jaw through what is almost guaranteed to be a painfully long afternoon, why not curate some music to help elevate your mood and remind yourself that a four day weekend of relaxation awaits?

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"Ad Astra" or How the Perfect Astronaut Saves the Universe

World War Z called: They want their infallible action hero back.

Ad Astra is a technically stunning film.

The cinematography and sound design set a new bar for what an outer space adventure film should feel like. The film cleverly utilizes designs from real-life spacecrafts to shape the "near-future" aesthetic of the Space Corps and blends dazzling lights and sounds to create a believably fantastical world just beyond the stars. If Ad Astra looks a lot like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, that's because they share the same cinematographer (award-winning DP Hoyte van Hoytema). It's like watching a moving painting, and IMAX provides a visual feast.

The plot, unfortunately, is not as impressive. Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a cool-under-pressure astronaut whose heart rate never rises above 80 bpm. He's charming and collected, handsome and capable. He knows how to fly a spaceship, shoot a laser gun, and lead a team. We're told through voiceover that McBride is a tortured soul; his pragmatic, cool-guy demeanor is a mask to hide his internal anguish and resentment. Through flashbacks, we discover he had a beautiful wife (Liv Tyler) who left him. We also learn that his father went missing in space over 16 years ago but has been heralded as an astronaut hero for going further into space than any human before. So when McBride receives word that his father may be alive and connected to a series of shock waves suddenly devastating planet Earth, he takes it upon himself to travel into space to find him.

Pretty cool, right? The plot seems tailor-made to push McBride to the edge of his composure, eliciting feelings that he's been compartmentalizing and forcing him to confront his demons! Except that never happens. Pitt's performance is stellar, tormented and nuanced, but the emotional burden he executes so well never actually plays into the narrative. Instead, what starts out like a solid character piece devolves into just another action movie. McBride gets caught up in an epic Moon rover chase and keeps his composure under enemy fire. He survives a violent catastrophe en route to Mars. Do his emotions ever get the better of him, threatening to sabotage his mission? Nope. He handles all his problems perfectly, always returning in one piece. He never even seems stressed, and there's no voiceover to tell us otherwise.

Rinse and repeat. Trouble pops up, McBride is badass, everything works out. People die around him, but he never gets a scratch, physical or otherwise. His emotions never get the best of him, and he does the right thing at every opportunity. There's a moment when McBride is faced with violence during the climactic scene – the perfect opportunity to have him lose his cool and reveal the inner agony that's been alluded to the whole movie. But he passively tries to de-escalate. Ultimately,he just floats around stoically as the movie takes care of his conflict for him.

It's hard to criticize Ad Astra when it gets so many things right. It's a superb visual achievement, a truly immersive movie-going experience full of fantastic performances. The Moon rover chase scene alone is worth the price of admission. But Pitt's performance is underutilized; and while the story promises character depth, it doesn't seem to be in service of anything greater. It's great that Brad Pitt can still impress us, but I wish he was allowed to enhance the story.

Rating: ⚡⚡⚡/5


Here's Quentin Tarantino's Terrible Defense of His Bruce Lee Portrayal in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

A wordsmith as talented as Tarantino should be able to talk his way out of this one in his sleep, right?

Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino's portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was pretty awful.

In a movie where Tarantino showed reverence to every star who even came close to the purview of his late '60s Hollywood playground (including convicted child rapist Roman Polanski), he chose to make Bruce Lee—the only minority character in the whole movie—the butt of a joke. While every other star got the benefit of nostalgia goggles, Tarantino depicted Bruce Lee as an arrogant caricature who needed to be knocked down a peg by bravado-filled stuntman/anti-hero, Cliff Booth.

Tarantino's treatment of Bruce Lee scarred an otherwise fantastic movie, and it's been derided by everyone from fans to Bruce Lee's own daughter, Sharon Lee.

Then, at a press conference in Moscow, someone asked him straight-up about the Bruce Lee controversy and Tarantino got his chance to make things right. One important thing to note is that, as far as potential controversies related to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood go, Tarantino is actually pretty lucky it's this one. For instance, people could be focusing on the fact that his positive portrayal of Polanski doesn't mesh well with the fact that he once defended Polanski by claiming that it was "not rape" because his child victim "wanted to have it." But alas, we're focusing on the fact that he did Bruce Lee dirty. A wordsmith as talented as Tarantino should be able to talk his way out of this one in his sleep, right?

Quentin Tarantino explains why Bruce Lee is so funny in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

First, one of the biggest issues people had with Tarantino's Bruce Lee portrayal was the character's claim that he could "cripple" Muhammad Ali. This was a point that Lee's former student, Dan Inosanto, directly disputed, saying: "Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on."

Here's Quentin's take: "If people are saying, 'Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,' well yeah, he did. Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that."

He's doubling down. Oh no.

But hey, maybe he'll properly address the other main grievance––that the first Asian actor to break through as a leading man in Hollywood, a hero to a whole generation of Asian Americans, is used as fodder to show how powerful a random fictional (white) stuntman is. I mean, this one has an easy defense. The scene is Cliff Booth's flashback: He's recalling the story, and Cliff is an arrogant dude. He's probably just aggrandizing himself in his own mind, right Quentin?

"Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad [Pitt] would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could."

Oh god.

"If you ask me the question, 'Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?' It's the same question. It's a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he's a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up."

Okay, so Quentin Tarantino ultimately falls back on the kindergarten defense. "The guy I made up is the strongest so he wins because I said so." Very cool, Quentin!


Did Cliff Booth Really Kill His Wife in "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood?"

Did Cliff Booth actually kill his wife or was it just a rumor spreading around the Hollywood backlots?

Sony Pictures

Cliff Booth, the ex-stuntman and current gofer played by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, is one of the most complex movie characters in recent memory.

Keeping in line with Quentin Tarantino's nostalgia-drenched period piece, Cliff represents a breed of male lead we haven't seen on-screen in over a decade. He's a man's man oozing with machismo, ever-composed. He's affable and good-natured with an edge of arrogance, casually racist but somehow still likeable. And yet, there's something cold and dangerous just beneath the surface, a willingness to engage in violence at a moment's notice without ever breaking a sweat. Cliff doesn't come off like a killer, but one gets the sense that he could easily kill.

Cliff Booth Sony Pictures

Partway through the movie, we find out that Cliff might have gotten away with killing his ex-wife—or at least that's the rumor spreading around the Hollywood backlots. While the truth of this rumor is largely irrelevant to the plot, its thematic import might shed light on some of the more dubious elements of Tarantino's vision.

The details of the supposed murder play out through the following context:

While Cliff's best friend/boss Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) works on a Western, Cliff is stuck at Rick's house working on the roof. A little bummed out, Cliff reminisces about the last time he booked a gig. Flashback to Rick pleading with a stunt coordinator to give Cliff a shot. The coordinator refuses, citing the fact that he doesn't want to work with a guy who killed his wife. Flashback again (yes, a flashback within a flashback):

Cliff is on a boat with his wife holding a harpoon gun. She's nagging him incessantly, insulting everything about him. That's it. We never see what happens next.

cliff booth bruce lee Sony Pictures

The movie leaves it up to debate whether or not this is even Cliff's memory of what actually happened or the stunt coordinator's reflection of the rumor. The truth is obfuscated even further: As the main flashback continues, Cliff proceeds to best a cartoonish Bruce Lee in a fight. This scene in particular is incredibly problematic for a lot of reasons, but even within the bounds of the narrative, it's hard to say whether or not Cliff's memory is a reliable interpretation of events as they really happened.

Both potential readings make sense. If Cliff really did kill his wife, that fits in line with his character. Even though the story of the murder comes off as a bit of a shock when we first hear about it, Cliff proves his capacity for extreme violence again and again throughout the movie—first when he beats the Manson Family guy who popped his tire and again during the movie's ultra-violent finale. If anything, knowing Cliff killed his wife works as a setup for his violence later on in the movie. Then again, if Cliff killed his wife and everyone knows about it, how did he get away with it scot-free?

Alternatively, if Cliff didn't actually kill his wife, the fact that he still lost his ability to continue getting stunt work speaks to the nature of rumors in Hollywood. Cliff is shown time and time again to be a talented stuntman who can parkour jump onto roofs and take blows with ease. But Hollywood is also an industry notoriously subject to the whims of perception. The idea that a talented person might be unable to get work due to a false story seems culturally prescient, albeit problematic.

Cliff Booth Sony Pictures

Ultimately, both interpretations point to questionable morals at the movie's core. If Cliff didn't kill his wife, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood centers around a talented, capable guy whose career was ruined by a lie involving a woman. That's not exactly the best look considering the current landscape of Hollywood, especially when Tarantino arguably covered for Harvey Weinstein in the past and defended Roman Polanski's rape of a minor. Polanski gets a very kind depiction in this movie, too, all things considered.

But if Cliff did kill his wife, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood suggests that maybe, just maybe, that's kind of okay. After all, Cliff's capability for brutal violence ultimately saves his friends and Sharon Tate from the whims of the Manson Family. Every other instance of Cliff's violence is righteous and, at least within the moral framework of the film, "good." So if Cliff killed his wife, she probably deserved it—at least that's what Once Upon a Time In Hollywood seems to say.

In the end, it's impossible to know whether or not Cliff actually killed his wife, so it's probably best to pick the interpretation with the least troubling implications for you. Then again, which is the lesser of two evils?


Spoiler-Free Review: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" Is Quentin Tarantino's Swan Song

"Once Upon a Time In Hollywood" is up there with Tarantino's best.

Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino movies are like high-end sushi.

The difference between Once Upon a Time In Hollywood and every other movie this summer is the same difference between Jiro's world-class sushi and the fare from any local, cheap sushi joint. Whether that other sushi is great or inedible, Jiro's sushi, regardless of whether or not one enjoys the taste of any specific type of fish, is undoubtedly the best cut on the market. The same can be said for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film which definitely isn't for everyone but is an indisputable masterpiece, nonetheless.

With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has reached a strange crossroads in his path as an auteur. Tarantino is a film icon, his work so beloved and so influential that it has irreversibly shaped pop culture around it. In 2019, his eye for his craft has never been sharper. At the same time, Tarantino's particular breed of filmmaking—edgy exploitation that seems targeted to shock and amaze other film buffs—no longer holds the same type of cultural relevance that it did in the '90s and early '2000s. In short, Tarantino has perfected his art at a time when its eventual irrelevance seems all too obvious.

In this light, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood could be seen as Tarantino's swan song. This is a master filmmaker from a bygone era making a masterful film set in another bygone era, released during a modern era when everything that came before it is being questioned, re-analyzed, and mostly discarded.

Set in an alternate version of Los Angeles in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows washed-up Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend/stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, who absolutely steals the movie), along with Dalton's new neighbor, famous actress and real-world victim of the Manson Family, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Rick has the strongest "arc," spending the bulk of the film coming to terms with his feelings of displacement in an industry in which he used to play the hero and has now been relegated to villain-of-the-week. Cliff, no longer necessary for Rick's stunt work, mainly bums around the city. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate attends a screening of one of her own movies and basks in the audience's enjoyment of her performance. None of them are in any rush to do anything that would typically be seen as "driving the plot."

once upon a time in hollywood Sony Pictures

But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a rare film whose plot necessarily needs to take a backseat in order to properly explore the setting. And make no mistake, this film evokes a stronger sense of "place" than any other movie in recent memory. Tarantino has essentially rebuilt a fully functional playground of 1960s Los Angeles that makes the movie feel like it was ripped straight from the era. The soundtrack is one of the best Tarantino has ever made. Every single scene is dotted with '60s-appropriate music, TV, radio, and advertisements. The characters function largely as vehicles through which to explore various facets of this world, from movie sets to the Hollywood strip to the Manson Family ranch.

Of course, like every Tarantino movie, the dialogue is razor-sharp, effortlessly blending absurdist humor with the occasional emotional gut punch. Rick and Cliff both feel like real people, and more importantly, their friendship feels genuine. Both characters are certainly racist and sexist, which is sure to turn some audience members off, but their attitudes seem perfectly tuned to the dominant ideology of the '60s, as opposed to serving as a reflection of Tarantino's views. In other words, Rick and Cliff are men of their time, both in good ways and bad.

Then, of course, there's the Manson Family, always operating on the fringes of the film—hitchhiking, collecting food from dumpsters, and ultimately plotting murder. The main questions prior to the film's release revolved around how Tarantino would handle the murder of Sharon Tate. Without getting into specific spoilers, the final act of the movie is both incredibly violent and weirdly hilarious, offering the kind of satisfying ending that Tarantino does best.

It's safe to say that there are no other movies out there quite like Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. It's probably not what audiences expect, and a lot of people will almost definitely hate it. But that doesn't make it any less of a masterpiece.

Rating: ⚡⚡⚡⚡⚡/5